My central research question for our December 2016 Working Group Meeting is, Can cognitive effort be measured?
There is growing evidence that fluctuations in brain activity may exhibit scale-free (“fractal”) dynamics. Scale-free signals follow a spectral-power curve of the form P(f ) ∝ f−β, where spectral power decreases in a power-law fashion with increasing frequency. In this study, we demonstrated that fractal scaling of BOLD fMRI signal is consistently suppressed for different sources of cognitive effort. Decreases in the Hurst exponent (H), which quantifies scale-free signal, was related to three different sources of cognitive effort/task engagement: 1) task difficulty, 2) task novelty, and 3) aging effects.
These results were consistently observed across multiple datasets and task paradigms. We also demonstrated that estimates of H are robust across a range of time-window sizes. H was also compared to alternative metrics of BOLD variability (SDBOLD) and global connectivity (Gconn), with effort-related decreases in H producing similar decreases in SDBOLD and Gconn.
These results indicate a potential global brain phenomenon that unites research from different fields and indicates that fractal scaling may be a highly sensitive metric for indexing cognitive effort/task engagement.
Marc G. Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and is involved in the Cognition, Social and Integrative Neuroscience programs, and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.